November 24, 2005. 6:00 p.m. 10,000 feet over New Orleans and descending. Below the plane, most of the I-10 East bridge has vanished into Lake Pontchartrain, swallowed by the gray, invariable flatness. More than five miles of lonely, sun-baked highway now lie submerged, fighting tidal waters that still refuse to ebb.
Land curves into view, and through the smudged windowpane, I notice a black, creeping mass on the beachfront: power outages threatening a loose confederation of sodium streetlights. “That’s Lakeview,” says George, my boyfriend. Slouching in the window seat next to me, he casts swift, tightened glances at the ravaged earth below. Somewhere, down there, is his family. “Over there,” he gestures vaguely. “That’s where the levee broke.”
Through the foggy glass, I can make out other patches farther inland and to the south, and the Lower Ninth Ward is like a thick, dark nebula nestled among orange terrestrial constellations. In the deepening twilight, the water glistens.
Three months after Katrina, the greater New Orleans area is still a war zone without a war, a battleground of castaways, driftwood and foam. With hundreds of thousands homeless, residents here have become refugees in their own city. It is almost December, and the Red Cross supply trucks still patrol the streets twice daily, doling out MREs and clean drinking water to families camped in FEMA trailers. Immense, ancient oaks still lay in and on roofs, where bright blue tarps have bloomed around them. And on every street corner waits a mound of refuse and rotted wood, guarded by broken toilets, washing machines and refrigerators.
That people still live here, that some of the evacuees have returned to their homes, that must mean something. But what home can stand firm on a foundation of mold and tears?
For weeks I’ve grappled with guilt and fear, at a loss for how best to prepare myself for this trip. I knew, for instance, that I wanted – needed – to give George’s family a gift; not just something to replace what was lost, but also something for peace of mind: a housewarming present for a home re-occupied. But gift giving in the South is a tricky, subtle beast, especially in times of need; charity is the worst offense to Southern pride. How I should reconcile convention and my want to help, I did not know. Could I bring clean sheets? Dishtowels? Plungers? A toaster oven?
I couldn’t decide. So I brought my DS.
The Nintendo DS had only been out for a few months, and not many games had been released for it yet. But I figured it might appeal to George’s younger brothers: two sturdy, weedy teenagers who, when I last saw them, had prattled on in tandem about the handheld’s impending release. They’d lost most of their gaming devices in the floods, and perhaps a round or two of Mario Kart might ease their minds, if only for awhile.
At least, that’s what I told myself as I stuffed the DS into my carry-on. But who am I kidding? The DS is really for me as my last resort; it is a warm hat into which this rabbit may vanish should there be a need. It can be my reserve of sanity, just in case I close my eyes and am unable to erase afterimages of this broken city, this graveyard of mud and jazz.
But even when lying to myself, I am true to my word. Not long after we arrive in Louis Armstrong International, I reluctantly present my DS to the boys. But both appear politely yet fundamentally uninterested – bored, even – as if I’d offered them Prada handbags or hairdryers. They exchange glances, and I realize that my offer is so absurd, so tangential that it would be rude, if it weren’t so clueless. As it is, I know they’re thinking of me as yet another nice but ridiculous person who just doesn’t get it.
They’re right, of course. I don’t get it; not at all.
We assume that in times of crisis, people will flock to diversion; that we’ll deify our books, TVs, computers and other escapisms like modern messiahs. The truth is, only the safe, comfortable people can do that, the ones saddled with the luxury of survival. The rest become painfully conscious of the transience of frivolity, growing heartsick at the thought of having fun when there is a city to rebuild. This self-reproach is like some secret breed of survivor’s guilt: No matter how fleeting or momentary your escape would be, you feel you just can’t leave everyone else behind.
So, despite how much he talked about it last spring, the DS is utterly irrelevant to a 14-year-old whose school opened two months late, whose girlfriend now lives in Alabama and whose house now bears a permanent line of demarcation 24 inches high. For a life uprooted, videogames lose their glamours, reverting back into plastic, silicon and dust.
When the 17th Street Canal levee broke less than a mile from George’s family’s house, most of the water flowed southward and to the east, infamously pooling in the concavity that is downtown New Orleans. As for the western side of the rift, events transpired differently. Luckily, the Metairie canal wall held, and the suburb managed to avoid most of Katrina’s tragic aftermath. Although the town still experienced significant flooding, it is situated a few inches higher than the neighboring parishes, and therefore, the waters stayed relatively low.
George’s family’s house sustained moderate damage, mostly from the initial hurricane strike. At its highest, the water only rose two feet; not inconsequential, but minor enough that George’s mother and brothers refused a FEMA trailer (opting instead to live in the second floor of their house until the first could be repaired). Aside from a ruined porch and a fugitive shed, the only structural damage was located in George’s old room.
During the ride home from dinner and the airport, George is like a pillar of Grecian marble, pale and blank. That water has warped his old Magic cards and wrinkled his high school yearbook doesn’t bother him, not really. If anything, it’s the possibility, the unknowing, that does. But there is one object about which I know he’s concerned: A childhood treasure, one he’s had for more than a decade.
Hanging close to a window now smashed in by Katrina is a limited edition poster of Samus Aran, circa Super Metroid era. Gleaming in her Varia Suit, she kneels among sand and rocks, with her smoking arm cannon raised upward and the lonely Zebian desert reflected in her visor. Only 2,000 were ever made, and he has #1,968. But it is more than some collector’s item; this poster is a tintype of the first girl to ever steal his heart. Like every man (and most women) of his generation, part of him still loves Samus Aran. She is his adolescence, his coming-of-age, a symbol of permanence and power and invincibility. What would it mean if she had been destroyed?
The drive to his house seems to last longer than usual. When we finally arrive, George immediately shuffles upstairs, walking with awkward and forced slowness. Our luggage leans against the stairs, completely forgotten.
I follow him into his old room where a musky, sweet pungency hangs in the air; it is the smell of water stagnated, evaporated and re-condensed over many months. Perfectly nonchalant, George glances at the wall by the window. He pauses. Clearly, it takes him a few seconds to process the swirl of red and yellow, to register that, indeed, Samus Aran still crouches on his bedroom wall. His eyes linger on her for many moments, until quietly, privately, he sighs and looks away. With furrowed brows and a frown, he turns to survey the damage to the rest of the room.
Maybe some talismans really are magic.
But as we clean, I can’t help but feel something indistinct and odd has transpired. I notice he avoids looking Samus’ direction. Even as he carefully packs away the poster to be sent by mail to our apartment up north, he does not look too closely at her, and he does not idle in his task. Briefly, I wonder if he might blame her somehow for surviving the hurricane. Or, in light of his subtle detachment, if she had really survived at all.
Late one evening, the five of us have gathered in the dusty, empty kitchen for dessert. George sits with his brothers at a shabby card table, dining on pre-wrapped cookies and warm Coke. Valiantly, he tries to make conversation, but his formerly gregarious brothers are now sullen and quiet. I can hear the frustration creep into his voice. Maybe there’s no use in even trying anymore.
Abruptly but hesitantly, the youngest brother asks George if he’s played Half-Life 2 yet. George looks confused but relieved. No, he answers, he hasn’t; it just came out and he’s still a little leery of Steam – and then the older brother chimes in, saying that now that they’d gotten their internet connection back, maybe they could get it soon. Which prompts the younger brother to make some comment about how much he loved the first game, and George adds, “Except for the headcrabs,” and then like a crashing tide, they all begin to talk at once.
I watch them parley in the language of brothers, laughing and one-upping and pontificating over videogames, as if there weren’t water stains on the ceiling or a faint brown line on the wall. Through the thickening dialogue, I can see the burden gradually lift, ever so slightly, for the three of them. It is still there, of course, hovering in the hollows once occupied by furniture. But it is less dense now, separating from their bodies like oil from water, skimming the surface of the conversation but never truly penetrating it.
I turn to George’s mother, who stands beside me. She has tears in her eyes that her sons do not see. She places her Styrofoam cup of black instant coffee on an empty box, and suddenly, I’ve never felt more like an intruder in all my life.
But as I watch these three brothers chatter so happily, I think I now understand the rejection of my DS offer and George’s strange reaction to finding his poster unharmed.
Hurricanes destroy more than just property; they destroy the sense of property, as well. They smash that universal belief that objects intrinsically carry some emotional gravity or weight. Acts of destruction remind us that physical substances are only equal to the exact sum of their parts: Plastic and cotton, metal or wood. What’s left over is a painful buoyancy, an unbearable absence of feeling; you mourn not just your lost PS2 games or your Xbox controllers but also the fact that these once precious things have been proven completely meaningless. Even if they do remain intact after the storm (like the Samus poster), the only entity that really survives is you.
Thus, life is distilled into your relationships with ideas, not objects; family, friendship, emotions and memories. These abstracts are what remain significant. Everything else is washed away.
Videogames retain importance only in the impressions that they’ve made on us: Memories of playing them, opinions of their value, hopes for the future, how we relate to other players. Therefore, the pursuit of electronic escapism is, at its core, an internal one. What matters more than videogames is the idea of videogames.
From this logic, there is only one conclusion, and I can see it now as I watch George’s family growing, if not happier, more peaceful: Once done, the act of escapism lasts forever. Your mind files it away in some remote corner, only to retrieve the moment later and replay it, cherish it, when the time is right. Even at your lowest point, you will never be abandoned by your memories of happiness.
You will never forget a videogame you’ve played. You may forget the plot and the characters and even the title, but once you have played a videogame and loved it, that happy fact remains with you when you need it most. It is a promise that no hurricane can destroy: You once were happy; you will be again.
Lara Crigger is a freelance writer whose work about videogames has appeared in Computer Games Magazine, Gamers With Jobs and The Escapist.